I spent the last four years reading books written by Muslim writers– practicing, non-practicing, lapsed, what have you– My scholarly focus on the literary representations of Muslimness has given me the opportunity to read my way around the world, but the majority of the books that ended up on my comprehensive exam list and in my dissertation were penned by writers of Muslim origin who live in the U.S.
I’m by no means exaggerating when I say that I loved reading every. single. book that was on my exam list (I am one of the lucky ones, indeed). But this year, I want to shift my focus to books by Asian writers and writers of Asian origin because why not?
I have no more exams to take, nor do I have a dissertation to write–oh, freedom (joking, I’d probably gladly write another dissertation/book on contemporary Asian literature, but my mind needs a break. Seriously).
Another reason I wanted to read around Asia, so to speak, is that I have for years been immersed in western literatures; I studied American culture and literature (yes, it’s a major!) in college, fell in love with Hemingway, moved to the U.S. to study some more American and European literature, and you know how it goes. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I moved to Missouri to start my PhD, my last stop in America, that I had the realization I hadn’t read a single book in Turkish in years. That epiphany, along with an existential crisis (for another post!), allowed me to get a head start on my work. But I digress.
My ultimate goal here as a voracious reader is to delve right into the literary scene(s) and spaces created by Asian writers–which I’ve been missing out on all these years. Eventually, I’d like to complete a “World Bookshelf Challenge” at the end of which I will have read at least one contemporary text from each country around the world, but let’s see how this particular reading list goes. (I call it the World Bookshelf Challenge not because I will be reading every single book supported by English PEN’s Writers in Translation program, but because 1) it is an inspiring concept and 2) I focus on contemporary literature as well)
Reading around the world challenges abound on the internet, and I admire and adore anyone and everyone who makes the decision to participate in a global reading challenge, no matter what their motivation is. As David Damrosch highlights:
Literature is not a simple mirror reflecting; rather, it refracts the culture from which it comes. But it provides a way to think deeply—it’s a little bit like the slow food movement in a world of fast foods. To read deeply and attentively a rich work of literature gives us a unique way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.
While reading (around) the world challenges are a wonderful tool through which we can read outside our comfort zone, the issue with some of these lists is that they, often unintentionally, perpetuate the nationalization of literatures, as well as the fetishization of stereotypes (and sometimes trauma, e.g. genocides, repression, suffering). In addition, male writers are consistently over-represented on these lists–mainly because nationally and internationally-acclaimed texts have usually been, for sociocultural and political reasons, penned by male writers. Then, there’s the problem of disproportionate representations of writers who are part of the global elite and write in English. It is quite difficult to find translations from each country, which brings the issue of global capitalism and its inequalities to the fore within the context of world/global literatures. I will not get into the scholarly debate on the terms “world”, “global”, and “international” literatures, but the links I have provided at the end of this post will offer some insight into the ways in which World Literature is being reconceptualized. What I’d like to underline, however, is how reading around the world lists, like most syllabi reading lists, often reflect hyper-elitism and gender-based disparity that permeate the global publishing market.
As emphasized in the article, “What is Global Literature?” (2013) published on n+1:
Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations. In the English language, World Literature has its signature writers: Rushdie and Coetzee at the lead, and Kiran Desai, Mohsin Hamid, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among the younger charges. It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit. Every year, sections of the dominant class fly from Mexico City to have Julian Barnes sign books in Xalapa, or from Delhi to Jaipur to be seen partying with Mario Vargas Llosa. The Hay Festival, started in Hay-on-Wye in rural Wales, now has outposts in Dhaka, Beirut, Nairobi, and elsewhere. “Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias” is an accidentally funny phrase — Sí, hay festival — redolent of a strange new intimacy between global north and south.
What about the role of the academy in this context?
It is argued that:
The key institution in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university.
Every World Lit writer seems to have an appointment. Pamuk teaches at Columbia; Paul Muldoon at Princeton; Junot Díaz at MIT. University-produced postcolonial theory was also part of the education of World Lit. Rushdie had crucial friendships with Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, as did Ngugi with Gayatri Spivak. Increasingly writers from Calcutta and Cape Town attend MFA programs in East Anglia or Syracuse. Universities that celebrate their commitment to diversity — of cultural identity, if not class background — owe it to themselves to hire writers of odes to hybridity.
World Literature today is thus canonized by the academy, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it is run like a private club by the global elites. “Today’s World Lit is more like a Davos summit,” it is stated in the article, “where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped.” This is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussions on World Literature. I wanted to begin with this brief overview because I kept, what David Damrosch calls, World Lit’s uneven playing field in mind as I was compiling my list. It has been challenging -might I add- to take a more mindful approach that refrains from over-representating globally and traditionally acclaimed male writers. So, this is by no means a perfect reading list.
Despite the challenges, however, I’m pleased with my reading around Asia list (which is and will be work in progress). The meticulously curated reading list down below is mainly (not entirely) comprised of contemporary literary works (published post-2005) by female and queer writers of Asian origin. I must add that I still need help finding queer and/or female Central Asian voices. Due to repression and censorship, publishing in the post-soviet countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is evidently an arduous process, but if you know of immigrant writers from Central Asia, or if you are one (self-publishing perhaps?), please let me know–I will keep updating my list as I’m introduced to more writers who are writing from “the periphery.”
So, how will I do this?
No strict rules, really.
My goal is to read one or two books from each Asian country–as defined by UNSD— and to write about them. It would be ideal to finish reading all the listed books in a year, but with a full-time job, it may not be possible, and that is okay. I’d like to take my time, savor each text, and read them deeply, if you will.
Either way, the book I’m currently reading will be highlighted like so.
And the ones read will be highlighted in this color.
For instance, I’m currently reading an advanced copy of Folklorn by Korean American writer Angela Mi Young Hur, which will be released in April 2021, and I already read Hala Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City, which is coming out soon. I won’t be reading the books in a particular order and may add new titles for each country throughout the year.
By reading these books, I hope to start a conversation about the texts, the countries, the writers, yes, but I also aim to explore the various ways in which national borders are transgressed in these works. Some of the questions I will be considering are as follows: What makes a “national writer”? How is a national (literary) identity formed? How can we read/understand these texts from different countries as a whole? How do these works contribute to our understanding of world literatures?
Feel free to read with me, or pick a book from the list and read it in your own time– and please let me know if you have any suggestions and recommendations.
P.S.: Thank you to everyone who recommended books to me as I was compiling my list–you’ve been a great help!
Reading Around Asia List
The World Bookshelf Challenge, 2021
Armenia: Bringing Ararat by Armand Inezian, 2010
Azerbaijan: Uçan Giden Bir Kus (A Bird That Flies Away) by Feriba Vefi, originally pub. in 2002, translated into Turkish by Lale Javanshir in 2016
- The Incomplete Manuscript by Kamal Abdullayev, translated by Anne Thompson, 2013
Afghanistan: Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi, March 2021
- A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, originally pub. in 2011, translated by Polly McLean 2013
Bahrain: Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amru- al Kadhi, 2019
- Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society by Emile Nakleh, 2011
Bangladesh: Shameless by Taslima Nasreen, 2020
Bhutan: Folktales of Bhutan by Kunzang Coden, 2016
- The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, 2005
Brunei: Written in Black by K.H. Lim, 2015
Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, 2012
China: The Chilly Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, originally pub. in 2013, translated by Nicki Harman, 2018
Cyprus: This Way Back by Joanna Eleftheriou, 2020
Georgia: Madrabaz Kvaci (Kvachi in English) by Mikheil Javakhishvili, 1925, translated into Turkish by Parna-Beka Cilasvili, 2017
- The Literature Express by Lasha Bugadze originally pub. in 2009, translated by Maya Kiasashvili, 2014.
Indonesia: The Original Dream by Nukila Amal, originally pub. in 2003, translated by Linda Owens, 2017
Iraq: Revolt Against the Sun by Nazik al-Malaʾika, originally pub. in 2020, translated by Emily Drumsta, Feb. 2021.
India: Whereabouts: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, originally pub. in 2018, pub. in English, April 2021
- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, 2017.
Israel: The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, 2019.
- Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, originally pub. in 2016, translated by Polly Barton, 2020
- Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, 2015
Jordan: Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan by I. Rida Mahmood (Translator), Alexander Haddad (Editor), 2015
Kazakhstan: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield, 2015
Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov, originally pub. in 1958, translated by James Riordan, 2007
Kuwait: The Pact We Made, by Layla AlAmmar, 2019
- Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar, March 2021
Laos: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, 2020
- The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang, 2016
Lebanon: Louder Than Hearts: Poems by Zeina Hashem Beck, 2017
Maldives: Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, originally pub. in 1978, translated from Dhivehi to English by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea, 2004.
Malaysia: We, The Survivors by Tash Aw, 2019
The Rice Mother by Rani Makina, 2002, 2004.
Mongolia: Mongol by Uuganaa Ramsay, 2013
Myanmar: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig, 2017
- Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade, 2017
Oman: Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Adbulaziz Al Farsi, translated by Nancy Roberts, 2013.
Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria, 2012
Palestine: Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa, 2020
- The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan, 2021
Pakistan: Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim by Sabina Rehman, 2016.
Philipines: The Mango Bride by Marvin Soliven Bianco, 2013
- The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chair, 1996
Russia: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom, originally published in 2011, Translated by Lola Rogers, 2016.
- Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, 2019.
Saudi Arabia: A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, 2018.
Singapore: The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim, 2014.
Sri Lanka: The Boat People by Sharon Bala, 2018
Syria: The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar, 2020
Taiwan: An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King, 2017
Tajikistan: My Neighbourhood Sisters & The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shakdi, 2016
Thailand: Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, originally pub. in 2014, translated by Mui Pooposakul, 2019
Timur-leste***: still looking for a book
- Women and the Politics of Gender in Post-Conflict Timor-Leste: Between Heaven and Earth, edited by Sarah Niner, 2016
Turkey: Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran, originally pub. in 2013, translated by Alexander Dawe, 2017
Turkmenistan: The Tale of Aypi by Ak Welsapar, 2016
United Arab Emirates: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, 2017
Uzbekistan: A Collection of Uzbek Short Stories by Mahmuda Saydumarova, 2012
Vietnam: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, 2011
- When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace by Le Ly Hayslip, originally pub. 1989, translated by Jay Wurst, 1993
Yemen: A Land without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal,translated by Willian Maynard Hutchins 2012
More on World Literature:
Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2011.
Damrosch, David. What is world literature? Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press., 2003.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Soret, Frédéric Jacob, Oxenford, John,Eckermann, Johann Peter. Conversations with Eckermann: being appreciations and criticisms on many subjects. Washington, M.W. Dunne. 1901.
Haen, Theo d’. The Routledge concise history of world literature. London : Routledge, 2012.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a discipline. New York : Columbia University Press, 2003.
Henitiuk, Valerie. The Single, Shared Text? Translation and World Literature. World Literature Today, (86)1, 30-34. 2012